Woody Allen is back at bat with Cafe Society, another story of a writer and the spaces that inspire and threaten him. Obviously, we’re not at a loss for opportunities in Woody Allen’s back catalogue to examine the director in exactly this mode; the very sense of a fictive past that has tormented his characters for decades has come home to roost, with Allen’s films doomed to repeat themselves much like the work of his characters. That doesn’t mean they can’t repeat in style, but it is unlikely that they will be more stylish than the exemplary peak of Allen’s evolution as a serious artist throughout the ’70s.
In stark, almost combative contrast to the prickly ennui of Scorsese’s Catholic-guilt stricken version of the city or Spike Lee’s hot-box from hell, Woody Allen’s New York has typically taken the form of a watchful angel that tests and teases but ultimately loves all of its inhabitants. In Allen’s films, people rely implicitly on physical spaces and ideological places like New York to redraw and redefine themselves. In Manhattan, and maybe only in Manhattan, this self-definition feels threatened by a city that is itself threatened by its own constant makeover, a city that is always reimagining itself until it encroaches on evaporating from reality altogether.
Manhattan is Woody Allen’s most transcendent motion picture, and possibly his most deceptively thorny, because it is an unabashedly incomplete and contradictory ode to the city that has infected almost all of his masterpieces with a kinetic jubilance. A radical treatise on the redefinition of love, it is a film that pretends to cast its lot in with human relationships and ultimately exhibits its greatest curiosity about spatial geometry and the possibilities that percolate within the mental prism that nominally corporealizes as a cross-hatch of streets and avenues. Love here isn’t simply human connection but self-definition, and it has much more on its mind than a pas de deux of two people in an otherwise anonymous space.
Of course, Allen’s best films always disrupt or bend the ossified latitudes and longitudes of spaces both physical and mental, tangling them in their own complications before reforming them in a semblance of new sanity if not necessarily absolving them of their sins. Fittingly, then, Manhattan suffuses its namesake in Gordon Willis’ ten-thousand-shades-of-grey photographic fashion-show courtship that recasts the city by the minute without ever sacrificing its essential transformability or mystique. In Manhattan, the city never sleeps, but it is always dreaming. And worrying.
Certainly not a summer fling like his career-defining, and career-reorganizing Annie Hall, Manhattan is a liaison between that film’s novel glamour and the disaffected somnambulist curiosity of the forgotten film Interiors, Allen’s Bergman-riff that arrived between the more resplendent peaks of Hall and Manhattan. The negative-tinted black-and-white lusciousness is an immediate clue-in to the ennui-adjacent tone of Allen’s complicated ode to his hometown. Rather than the semi-escape in the free-flowing LA provided to Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Manhattan chooses not to essentialize NY as one side of a dialectic with LA but instead to enter NY into a dialectic with itself. In one scene, Willis’ misty monochrome is a sensitive third-wheel in a midnight tryst, and in another, the city’s darkness seems to preclude endearing adoration altogether, refiguring the backdrop for romance into an active participant in loss, a mausoleum to hide one’s own troubles away in. Like an idea, the city can be anything to anyone, but its most essential component is its reconfigurability.
Don’t mistake the colorless hues for a prison sentence of pure diametric opposition though; this is also a city that can be many things at the same time, rather than simply modulating itself between two tones. While Allen’s character Isaac is indoors, the film can be more restful, graceful, and prowling all at once, dressing itself in a classical Hollywood sheen that is undercut by the provocative film grain. Nominally a series of intellectual, brainy conversations, the film’s interiors are not merely existentialist but exploitation-adjacent. The film refuses to exhale around Isaac, reconfiguring him as predator when he stalks around the house of his ex-wife, played by Meryl Streep; the chiaroscuro cleaving the apartment into pieces alone could cut through even the sturdiest of New York Mafioso stereotypes, figures who are very much at home spiritually in Allen’s amalgamation of New York mysteries and imaginative figments. In this scene, one of Allen’s few where he addresses the more malevolent tendencies of his weaponized skittish male emasculation, New York is a decidedly less amorous partner than we’ve come to know.
This is merely one of many human and locational identities essayed in Allen’s film, a mystical and always elusive treat that dances around Allen’s Isaac and Yale (Michael Murphy), both men who may face possible futures with Mary (Diane Keaton). More complex is the relationship between Allen’s character, a struggling writer without much of an identity outside of his books, and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a teenager who Isaac is dead-set on avoiding or at least pushing away from; Allen’s troubling personal life and the nominally romantic light he typically casts his nebbish males in are both implicitly redressed in a film that curiously denounces its men by intimating their discomfort with personal, present-tense relationships or vivid, lively human interaction.
Which is probably why the film’s center is “the fond memory” Isaac wishes Tracy to see him as, with Willis’ cinematography and the Gershwin music iron-casting a filtration system to redraw New York through various imaginative memories of various time periods, from the jazz-age razzamatazz of the ‘20s to the punchy noirs of the ‘50s. Isaac’s writerly, obsessive self-imprisonment in his own ideas both critiques and endears us to a life lived in memories and figments or fictions. His character’s Nazi-obsession ultimately serves for Allen as an expression of humanity’s inability to escape from the past as well as an embodiment of the still-lingering past as it does actually inform us in the present. The allure of our fetishes are a currency with which Allen curates the clutter of the human mind that is both freed by and trapped within visions of the past.
Ultimately, Allen’s city is a way of visualizing people recast through their pop-cultural facades, with the writer-director finally taking up the latter-half of that two-fisted name as he matches his prickly wordplay with a luminescent, multi-faceted visual tableau of a city that is always morphing – always alive – and yet somehow melancholically ensnared in its own self-image, and thus deadened in a remarkably self-critical commentary on Allen’s behalf. It’s a mythological film about the mythological nature of film produced in a time period that has, in the ensuing 40 years, been mythologized, a triple-threat that makes the film more acclimatized to certain truths about artifice and myth in everyday life and also deviously narcissistic about its own self-image. The city itself becomes self-absorbed like Allen’s thornily immature version of his character in this film; the location always seems to be reconfiguring itself, doubting its appearance, sketching itself anew in a different shade of grey that always leaves open the possibility of other adjacent shades, other selves, invading and replacing its current identity.
The material quality of the film even threatens to slip away from us with all this metaphysical redistricting afoot, turning the city into a phantom or a specter that, like Allen’s character, might just lose itself amidst all of its malleability. In the famous Brooklyn Bridge scene, the city is torn between a nearly illusive impressionist mist in the background and a blacked-out silhouette in the foreground, like it is splitting itself and fracturing its completeness to try on different selves for different moments for different people. As a transformable backdrop to differing emotional complexions, the city also liquefies its own identity, abstracting it from the limits of a physical form and paving the way for a location that might be afraid to step into the light and see itself as anything permanently. So much spidery slipping and sliding threatens to topple a city whose legs become wobblier by the minute.
It’s all right there in the opening monologue; New York has been Allen’s idol for decades, but in Manhattan, the hierarchy of worship is kindled into the more active, aggressive, angst-ridden tet-a-tet of romance with one’s own failures and fictions. Manhattan is the story of self-absorption in fiction as a way of coping with a changing world you don’t want to deal with (thus, punk is nowhere to be found, with Isaac totally unwilling to tease out the connections between the Graucho Marx comedies he adores and the renewed anarchism of punk music). In the film’s final moment, Tracy, the only figure in the film who seems above the psychological inward intellectualism and pop-culture fetish, leaves for England as Isaac suggested. She alone escapes a world in which the solution of drowning in your imaginative self also becomes a foreclosure of opportunity and genuine connection.
Allen’s theoretically elitist, insular, romantic vision of a city trapped in the past, in love with alternate visions of itself, implodes with its own failure to escape from its very pasts. The egocentrism embodied by the characters and the city is imbued with a potent charge, an overcast gloom of self-revelation in the possibility to understand ourselves through fictions rather than simply basking in them. We can choose to debate with as well as reject this revelation; Allen, more self-critical than he is often given credit for, is less assured than his critics are willing to admit that the human species is on a path toward the former.